Monday, August 17, 2015

Bernie Sanders, Corporations, Co-operative Democracy

After the Annual Employee Store Meeting in the Southern Village outlet of Weaver Street Market Co-operative last evening, I was going rather pompously to title this post: The Loss of Co-operative Democracy. But I found an even more sweeping and pompous subject heading.

And so. Last evening, finally, I was able to address my peers on the co-op policy that demands that all workers be included in decision-making within our co-op. Even better, I got a response from the gathered management team at SV:

1) We mere minions probably do not have the capacity to understand complicated figures. Best to leave that to the experts. A variation on, don't you worry your pretty little heads, we've got this. Um. Has anyone recently done a headcount on the number of employees in SV with college degrees, and/or who have run their own businesses?

2) To allow 250 people to be involved in making important decisions would be chaos. No. It wouldn't.

The starting point for my advocacy on this very clear policy (which, by the way, not one person denied does actually exist, and I attach once more, to remind you) was that we needed to expand on the raw policy by now designing a system for implementing it, so that the policy would not bring day-to-day operations to a grinding halt.

But leaving that obvious 'duh' to one side, the whole point of spreading responsibility for major decisions is to act as an antidote to the clusterfuck that results when just a few corporatists, in a small room, behind a combination lock (our corporate office in Hillsborough), make decisions without reference to all those affected by their decisions. Which antidote is called 'economic democracy.'

Clusterfuck decisions like the ones that led to the $10 million debt incurred by WSM senior management in 2008, as a result of the failed expansion program in that year, which debt we are still paying off (costing us $500,000 a year in interest and depreciation - do you notice how this minion actually knows how to spell those words, and use them in a complete sentence?).
Which mistake we may be about to repeat with the new plans to build three new stores. Not least because the decisions will be taken by just a few members of senior management, blah, blah, cf. combination lock, $10 million debt, loss of co-operative democracy ...

3) We are a worker-consumer co-op. Consumers must have their say as well as workers. True. And they do. But, as has been recognized throughout the existence of WSM, workers get a smidgeon more of a say, since we are the ones on the ground. This approach is why the dividend is split exactly 50:50 between workers (250) and consumers (18,000), to the obvious financial advantage of WSM employees.

On which point. Consumers? Please note, your Annual Meeting, one of the few times you get to answer pointed questions of your senior management, is this year going to be reduced to a guided tour of the WSM Food House, and a couple of our new sandwiches. For which tour, you will have to buy a ticket. Yes, you will have to pay to ask senior management questions.

Meanwhile, I did notice that, for the very first time in the ten years I have been with WSM, there were no senior officers from the WSM corporate office at our meeting last evening. We were talking to ourselves.

This is how, by stages, hiccups and sneezes, year on year, co-operative democracy is reduced to a pizza evening and a raffle.

And the worst part? No-one gives a shit.

People, it is no good writing self-serving, pompous rants about ‪#‎BlackLivesMatter‬, Bernie Sanders, Donald Trump, the evils of hegemonic corporations, and the lurking slavery of global economic fascism, if we can't be bothered to raise our hand in our own co-op, because we'd rather be getting drunk at a Peggy and The Fishtails concert.

Economic democracy begins at the immediate, intimate level. Generals do not get where they are without the willing compliance, ignorance or silence of the foot-soldiers.

But I digress.

Back at our Store Meeting, I ended my seemingly pointless monologue by emphasizing that democratization of decision-making is truly the best way to increase sales - the latter being the purported theme of the evening.

Consumers buy more when they are happy. They are happy when employees are happy. And, leaving aside giving each employee a Ferrari, workers are happy when they are empowered by being included in the decision-making that affects how they perform.

And that, my friends, is almost that. There is a better way. In our co-op. In the corporatist world. One where we do not leave decision-making to just a few. Where we spread the burden to a wider knowledge base, to those who will be implementing the decisions, so that they, we feel invested in the outcome.

That is how we create a co-op we want to work at. That is how we create a new economic democracy. One that makes a profit. Pays the dividend. And is a joyous, happy place to be and work. I leave you with this taste of what an authentic worker co-op could look like ...

... but, with this admonition: you gotta put your hand up ...